Volume XI | Issue 1 | Spring 2011
The Jones family added a row of Western storefronts on the site of the Dayville Mercantile to lure tourists. It’s just one of the strategies they have employed to build the business.

A challenging enterprise

Rural grocery stores face economic difficulties

When Angela Jones and her parents, Don and Sharon Jones, bought the Dayville Mercantile in 2006, they were pleased to continue a rural tradition. The store has served as the community center for the 130-some citizens of Dayville for more than a century. 

Located 125 miles east of Bend, the store provides a  couple of comfortable couches next to the woodstove in the back room, ready for the townspeople who start their day by grabbing their personal coffee cups off the wall and visiting with neighbors. 

“The Dayville Merc has been here 115 years and has been the focal point of the town since the beginning,” says Angela Jones.

the local grocery store provides much more than food

The family, who came from Prineville and are known locally as the “Jones Gang,” immediately began to renovate the elderly building and improve the inventory. Their hard work paid off right away, with a 28 percent increase in growth for each of the first two years. 

Then the gas crunch hit, and the store, a popular stop for tourists visiting the John Day Fossil Beds and popular Picture Gorge, began to see a decline in travelers. The slump in business has driven home the economic difficulties of operating a rural grocery store, a critical piece of rural infrastructure that is disappearing across the country. 

The local grocery store provides much more than food – it acts as an economic driver, a central meeting place, and an employer. Recent studies have shown, however, that the rural grocery store is an endangered species in rural America, as the challenge of operating these enterprises grows.  

The Jones Gang knows just what those challenges are. The first obstacle, and in many ways the most frustrating, is the local flight to big box stores in Redmond or Bend, more than 100 miles away. “It’s a whole new lifestyle,” says Angela Jones. “People go to town, they do lunch, they spend their money somewhere else. They don’t understand what it is doing to their community.”

Another challenge is dealing with suppliers, according to research by the Center for Rural Affairs. “If you don’t have the volume, they don’t want to deliver,” Jones says. “And if they do deliver, they will deliver in case lots and charge you shipping. They really don’t want you as a customer.”

Cargo trailer

Jones’ solution was to buy a cargo trailer, outfit it with a generator and a freezer, and drive to Boise or Portland to buy food. “It’s the only solution we could find,” she says. “It took three years to pay for itself, but now I can offer several different varieties of Jell-O, in 10 different flavors with three or four boxes of each, and I don’t have to buy case lots.”

Small grocers also deal with high-energy costs (mostly due to use of small coolers instead of more efficient walk-ins), a host of labor woes and a small profit margin. 

The Joneses have worked hard to expand the Mercantile’s offerings in the hopes of luring local customers and drawing more outside business. They added a row of Western storefronts that offer photo opps for tourists, and wrote and staged a Western melodrama there. They invited gun buyers and other traders to do business from the store. They feature jewelry, crafts and art from local artisans, and they just launched an Internet site to broaden sales.

When her parents suffered a bout of ill health, Jones took over nearly all the work in an enterprise open every day of the year except Christmas and New Year’s (and Easter, this year.) Because of that, the Joneses have put the store up for sale. A big selling point is the Mercantile’s importance to the community it serves.  

“Without a grocery store, there’s no town,” Jones says. “There’s no place for people to meet, no social connection. There’s always a store first, then maybe a post office and a school to back it up. But if they can’t get food, they won’t stay.”  

Read “Studies focus on Solutions” in this issue of Community Vitality to learn how two towns have become creative in bringing grocery stores to their communities.

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